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Mid-Season Report: Manchester United Reserves and Academy

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Exciting months ahead for the United youth setup

Manchester United hold plenty of records. Those twenty league titles rightfully get all of the attention, but an equally impressive mark comes from the club’s academy. For the past 81 years, every United match-day squad has included a homegrown Red. That’s 3,952 games, in case anyone’s counting.

Even for a club that prides itself on giving youth players a chance, that’s a mind-blowing number. No one else in the Premier League even comes in a close second. And with Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, and Jesse Lingard all thriving under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this streak doesn’t look like ending any time soon.

Just last week, Solskjaer invited the cream of the next crop — Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, and James Garner — to train with the first team in Dubai. The United academy remains as important a part of the club’s story as ever.

Kieran McKenna, an academy graduate of a different sort, understands this better than most. “It’s definitely a massive part of the club,” he told MUTV. “No club in the world has got a better tradition of bringing youth-team players through to the first team. We’re all passionate for that to continue.”

And continue it will. Maybe even for another 81 years.

With the 2018/19 season now at its midpoint, let’s check in on Manchester United’s academy ahead of what should be a thrilling run-in.

Under-23s

Last season ended with the disappointment of relegation from the Premier League 2’s first division, but Ricky Sbragia’s side hope to bounce right back. After a strong first half, though, the U23s stumbled out of the gate in 2019. Back-to-back league losses dropped the joint-leaders down to fourth place.

This mini-slump is partly explained by Gomes and Chong traveling with the first team to Dubai, though both returned for Friday night’s loss to Fulham. In fact, Chong’s brilliant free kick accounted for United’s only goal of the game.

They’re back in action on Thursday for an important Premier League International Cup match against PSV Eindhoven U23. Back in December, the Reds gutted out a 1-1 draw with Group F leaders Derby County to stay alive in the competition. United will finish group play later this month against Paris Saint-Germain U23.

With such big matches still to come, Sbragia must contend with the club’s decision to send players out on loan. This experience — against grown men fighting for a job — will stand these youngsters in good stead, but could also hurt the U23s in the standings.

20-year-old midfielder Ethan Hamilton headed out this week, linking up with League One’s Rochdale for the rest of the season. Expect more to follow. (Oh, and Hamilton made quite the first impression by uncorking a long-range missile for his debut goal on Saturday.)

Under-19s

Coached by Nicky Butt himself, the United U19s breezed through the group stage of the UEFA Youth League this fall. Matched up with Juventus, Valencia, and Young Boys — just like their senior counterparts — the young Reds won five of six to easily top Group H. Now, they await the knockout round draw on February 22 to learn their opponent in the last sixteen.

Chong, Gomes, Garner, and Greenwood all regularly feature in this competition, joined by the likes of Aidan Barlow, Nishan Burkart, Lee O’Connor, Josh Bohui, and Aliou Traore. There’s a ton of talent in this group, as evidenced by their unbeaten run in the Youth League.

But, just like the U23s, some top players are already earmarked for loans. “Is it good to have some players just waiting for an Under-19s game to come along?” Butt asked. “No, so we are looking to get players out on loan to develop them so they come back better players and better people for the club, with a real chance at playing on the biggest stage in the world.”

Under-18s

The U18s take the prize for the best academy win of the season. Shortly before Christmas, Neil Ryan’s side slew the FA Youth Cup giants of Chelsea in a breathless 4-3 victory. Yes, those same Blues who’ve won the competition five years in a row and hoped to equal Manchester United’s record of 10 FA Youth Cups with another this season.

It was truly a night to remember for the young Reds, with Mason Greenwood striking for a hat trick and providing a small measure of revenge for last year’s loss to Chelsea in the U-18 Premier League final.

With Chelsea vanquished, United now await the fourth round match against Brighton & Hove Albion on January 21. The Reds haven’t won the FA Youth Cup since 2011 — back in the days of Pogba and Lingard — but look poised to make some noise in 2019.

In other cup action, United take on Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the Under-18 Premier League Cup at the end of the month. The Reds hope to make it two in a row over their rivals from Merseyside, after winning 3-1 in a league match this summer.